Are we just styling?

I wrote this piece over two months ago. I meant to post it but a very busy work period took over and I forgot. A lot of my ideas have changed since I wrote this paper particularly about the work of Santos. I found his work instantly fascinating once I read a paper by him.  I’m going to post the piece anyway as it captures a particular moment when I was in the midst of a crazy-timeframed evaluation and found myself wondering what is this all about, where is all this going, are we caught up in our own intellectual trends? How do we know if we are and how can we see through them if we are? As intellectuals as change-agents how do we keep ourselves honest?  I’ve finished the evaluation now and I do think it was a useful process. It gave me insight into people more than about whether the project we were evaluating was showing early signs of success or not. More than anything I come away from it with the sense that we need more time to pause, reflect, take stock and notice how our interactions with others are spaces that can keep us honest if we have an ear to the ground and the spaces within ourselves to listen. Listening to the stories people tell us of our own actions can be a catalyst for this honesty which makes me a little hesitant about my project thesis. In my first case study I’m working with my own work. It is going to be an interesting practice to listen out for the stories people tell me of my practice and to tell these stories to myself.. 

The place I call my intellectual home, the Environmental Learning Research centre is about to turn 25. Frightening to think that I have been associated with this institution for almost 20 years. Frightening from a personal ageing perspective but exciting and hopeful from another perspective. It is nice to know that one belongs to an intellectual community that is as committed as this one. As a bit of a loner and introvert I don’t often seek to belong but I’m quite happy to say that I have been shaped and continue to be shaped through my engagement with this institution and the brilliant minds that hold it together and pass through it (only to return once again). As a preparation for 25 year celebrations the centre is sending PhD students 10 papers to read. On a first glance they seem very topical. South African Universities are currently being dragged kicking and screaming into a transformative debate. It seemed to start at UCT with the ’#rhodesmustfall’ movement followed by the ’rhodessowhite’ campaign at Rhodes University and recently, in reaction to a documentary on racism and exclusion and Stellenbosch University, ’Where is the Love party’ calling for us to forget our blood stained past and rather party and be happy. A nice sentiment but in my experience a good party was never really driven by anything except a desire to distract myself from the world around me and resulted in nothing but a headache and a false sense that I had a lot of friends that really cared about me. Alcohol can really make a friend of anyone and can be the common denominator that anyone can have in common with literally anyone else.

As a person who is naturally suspicious of movements of any kind I wonder at the new interest in ’cognitive justice’ and post-colonial theory (and this suspicion extends to my own renewed interest). Part of me is horrified that it has taken this long for these kinds of papers to be circulated so vehemently at Rhodes and I wonder are we just styling with the latest trend or is this a fight for a real style democracy? I remember when I was doing my Masters we were arguing for the voice of the South and critiquing the dominance of Western epistemology. When we are in our twenties we tend to be a lot more vocal than later on in life or vocal in a different way. I was not vocal in a sense that I said a lot but I was vocal about my position and my outrage at epistemological dominance. It raged in me like a burning furnace and the furnace sometimes didn’t allow space for careful thinking. Now, later on in life, after I managed to thoroughly burn myself out the outrage is still present but in a very different form. I would like to think it is more compassionate, less antagonistic and more considered but I could be wrong because there is still a burning, raging bonfire of outrage against patriarchy. We talk about the dominance of the West can we also talk about the dominance of the masculine and the epistemology of patriarchy which goes unchecked every god damned day of our lives. I was driving to Nelspruit two days ago for work. Two billboards and a bumper struck me: A big billboard courtesy of Kentucky Fried Chicken advertising a new meal with the slogan ”for mom’s night off.” Shame KFC. Shame!!! Another billboard advertising a sale at a shopping centre with the words ”Wives, your husband called ahead buy anything you want” and finally a bumper stickers ’Wife and dog missing, reward for dog.’ Funny huh! No not funny. Not in the least. So I start my reading of these papers carefully because the silent silence is that male dominance is still at large. That there is also a need to fight for the epistemic position of women and the continually silenced knowing of women everywhere.

The first suggested paper is called ”Epistemologies of the South and Human Rights: Santos and the Quest for Global and Cognitive Justice” (Barreto, 2014). I’m going to use this blog space to free write my response to this paper. A second reading may be more nuanced so please excuse any blundering assumptions or polarised statements. So I start with an apology… mmmm. Maybe because my first reaction to this paper was a slight disappointment. I was expecting something larger, something deeper, something more. . . I don’t know.. different. The words ’geopolitics of knowledge’, post -abyssal thinking’ got me excited but it didn’t last. Maybe because I’m tired, a little disillusioned by BIG FANCY WORDS and even maybe feeling a little disempowered. I’m looking for something to add agency, to breath a fire of action into people, to burn a few bridges maybe. What I found was that (and I could be wrong) western epistemology is still central. The worry still is how to change western epistemology. Maybe I got the wrong end of the stick but a lot of the paper focuses on how Western epistemology needs to change. Why? Who cares if it changes or not? Sure it would be nice but I don’t really care. I don’t want to focus on changing Western epistemology. Why not just ignore it (all this of course goes against my deep belief that we need to consider history but why always the West’s history). I also found the discussion of cognitive injustice a little shallow. I want depth. I want tearing. I want to hear the absences that make cognitive injustice possible. I want to hear exactly what cognitive justice is.. and it is all well and good to dialogue but dialogue demands that an equality already exists. Freire called our attention to this as is represented in my favourite quote if his:

”Dialogue, as an encounter of men/women addressed to the common task of learning and action, is broken if the parties lack humility. How can I enter into dialogue if I always project ignorance onto others and never perceive my own? How can I enter into dialogue if I regard myself as a case apart from other men/women. . . ? How can I enter into dialogue if I consider myself a member of the in-group of pure men/women, the owners of truth and knowledge, for whom all non-members are ’these people’ or ’the great unwashed’? If I start from the premise that naming the world is the task of an elite and that the presence of the people in history is a sign of deterioration which is to be avoided, how can I hold a dialogue?. . . men/women who lack humility (or have lost it) cannot come to the people, cannot be their partners in naming the world. Someone who cannot acknowledge himself to be as mortal as everyone else still has a long way to go before he can reach the point of encounter. At the point of encounter there are neither utter ignoramus or perfect sages, there are only men/women who are attempting, together, to learn more than they now know.” (Freire, 2000)

Now I’m sorry if I sound cynical but in my experience there has been little humility from Western intellectuals unless of course they are looking for case studies for their latest pet theory. I often feel that I am some kind of interesting oddity out there at the coalface of experience as it is often referred to. Close to the suffering maybe but not actually suffering myself. The Dalai Lama spoke of this as do many Buddhist teachers when they come to the West. The suffering they find there is seen as petty, internal, personal (Buddhist teachers would never use these words. Their words would be surprised but compassionate). Augusto Boal felt a similar thing when he took his amazing theatre techniques to the West. He created theatre tools for the Oppressed. He called theatre a weapon of the people. The core of all his techniques was for the oppressed to overcome their oppression which was always an external force – a cop, the politician, the corporation. Then he went to Europe and was shocked. There was hardly any external oppression here. The oppression was internal. A core anxiety. A base fear of the individual alone in the world. So he developed a different technique which he called ’Rainbow of desires’ where the dramatic exercises didn’t focus on the external oppressor but on what he called ’the cop in the head’. The thoughts that tells us we are not good enough, not strong enough, not worthy enough. Individualism is the greatest oppressor of all it seems and requires very little force besides the discourse of fear, of abandonment and a thought that I, me, the great ’I’ is of more important than the collective well being of billions of ’others’. How much lost sleep over whether ’I’ am good enough, ’I’ am enlightened enough, ’I’ have reached my full potential. What a load of bullshit! Our worth should be measured according to our collectives. What did Gandhi say? The civilisation of a country should be measured on how it treats it’s animals. What did the activists in Doris Lessing’s famous book ’The Golden Notebook’ say? Something like. . . ”I will not have the civilisation of my country measured by whether the trains run on time.” (Lessing,1973) . Of course I’m being simplistic. Of course there is great suffering in the West. Of course people go hungry but the scale, the scale of it. . .

Maybe I’m tired of talking about the suffering I see every day and in response see the excitement in an academic’s eyes. Before I know it little diagrams are being drawn in the shape of flowers, or pyramids, spirals or circles. Papers are written about the gospel of this latest little drawing and the connections it envisages. If only these diagrams could become what they claim to be. I know they are only tools for us to imagine new ways of being, new ways of relating to each other and maybe they do push the boundaries of our thinking. I shouldn’t be so nasty about them. They are tools of communication, tools of sharing and maybe they even help us build collectives. But when the drawing or the theory or the position becomes more important than the reason why we are doing all of this then I wonder – is there a place for dialogue? Is there a space for really opening our minds to the possibility of new cognition, of new thought? I work on a ’changing practice’ course which is all about dialogue and learning from each other. I can see the benefits of this course on myself, on the people involved. I can see how it is a small, tiny catalyst that can bring people together in ways shimmer on beyond the confines of the few days the participants and I spend together and yet it bothers me that at some point we asked them to be Western intellectuals by asking them to write case studies according to the great case study tradition. Are we giving them a skill or are we inculcating them into a tradition of cognition that may be limiting? I went along with it because I do understand the power that is held in the tradition of a well developed ’case study’ but I still wonder. The aim of the course or the aim of any learning is, for me, to rediscover our natural, innate ability to question and know our world. I am fully with Freire here. For me learning is not only about adding things. It is about taking things away. When I presented the first variation of this course at a conference to a bunch of technicians who looked at me with confused wonder I ended the talk with the following:


Often I hear people saying that those with a limited education cannot be critical thinkers. Every human being is constantly making choices according to their own context and the limitations of that context.

A lack of critical thinking is not a sign of a lack of education, rather it is a sign of mis-education. The course does not attempt to teach people how to be critical but to help them remove what inhibits their natural ability to question their world.”

Sometime this means removing our inability to use a computer or it could be removing our lack of confidence in our own voice. It could mean encouraging each other to remove the need to write in English. It could even mean realising that the absence that is needed is not with the individuals in front of me but within me or even within structures. What then? What action do we take then to remove what inhibits our natural ability to question our world? There is no knowing what will be needed to be gently and collectively free up the innate human capacity to question and know. This for me is what cognitive justice is all about. Therefore if the structures of western epistemology are not willing to consider the idea that there may be something absent in their thinking besides the case data from the coal face of the South or the East then dialogue becomes nothing more than a parent listening to a child’s anecdotes and repeating them on Facebook for the enjoyment of their adult friends. The relationship is never equal.

This brings me back to patriarchy. A conversation about the inequalities that women experience can’t begin until both men and women admit that a male -dominated view of the world is exactly this – a view of the world through the lens of patriarchy. It is a lens that excludes the day to day experiences of the oppression of women in almost every facet of life. Acknowledging this takes courage as much courage as it takes all white South Africans to admit every day that their privilege is due to the past (and possibly future) oppression of others. No warm fuzzy party of ’lets forget the past’ will remove that. Sorry Stellenbosch Uni I get the sentiment but no fireworks and hugs can remove things that easily. It takes courage to live with this. It takes strength. I would suggest that instead of organising a party you organise a dialogue and if you don’t want to do that do something as simple as when you wake up each morning think with gratitude that your are privileged and consider how, in some small way, you can use the fact that you are privileged to benefit someone else. The propaganda that privilege comes with hard work is a load of stinking hogwash. Face it, my fellow white South Africans we were born into a context that gave us what we have today. Be grateful for it if you’ve got it and use it for some use. This is all I request from men too, that they wake up each morning and be grateful for privileges that have come to them simply by being born a man and then think about how they can use this to break down this ridiculous gender bias. More importantly have the courage to face the violence that goes hand in hand with male dominance and don’t perpetuate it. Guilt is not the answer. We don’t choose the context we were born into just as we can’t choose the time we are given to live. So lamenting and gnashing our teeth is useless as is turning away from privilege and in rebellion adopting a life of suffering. Even the Dalai Lama would laugh at that. We are who we are, when we are. How we are is where our choice lies. I have met men and women strong enough to be this courageous and it is with them that I want to converse. It is to them that I look to for courage and moral guidance. It is with them that I want to re-imagine beyond a north or a south epistemology to a epistemology of being. I am not interested in changing a western conception of rights or a male conception of rights. I’m interested in rights.


Allouche, J., Middleton, C., and Gyawali, D. (2015). Technical veil, hidden politics: Interrogating the power linkages behind the nexus. Water Alternatives, 8(1):610–626.

Barreto, J.-M. (2014). Epistemologies of the south and human rights: Santos and the quest for global and cognitive justice. Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies, 21(2):395–422.

Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury Publishing. Lessing, D. (1973). The golden notebook. 1962. Frogmore: Granada-Panther.

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